Watchmen: A primer and a preview

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If you’ve journeyed out to the cinema and battled crowds to see “The Dark Knight,” chances are you got to sneak a peek at one of the most hotly anticipated comic book big screen adaptations. Yeah, yeah, I know, everyone seemingly says much the same about every comic book movie. Just as soon as “Iron Man” comes out -- a movie labeled “Best. Comic Book Movie. Everrrrrrr!” -- “The Dark Knight” comes along a few months later, and everyone is busy saying the same thing. In fact, I’d imagine there’s a segment of the movie-going public that’s really starting to tire not only of the fawning but the comic book movie trend in general. Surely there’s more to big budget filmmaking than capes, cowls, webheads and weirdos, right?

WatchmenEnter “Watchmen,” Zack Snyder’s upcoming adaptation of the groundbreaking graphic novel, originally published as a 12 issue series in 1986 and ’87. It’s currently the only graphic novel to win a Hugo, and in 2005, Time magazine dared to place it on their list of “The 100 best English-language novels from 1923 to the present.” With that kind of pedigree, there’s a good chance it’s a real snoozer, right? Wrong. “Watchmen” is a dense, joyous thing of beauty – a piece of literature as well as a gorgeous collection of pop art. Mr. Alan Moore wrote the words, but the less we say about Moore, the happier he’ll probably be. The guy stopped allowing Hollywood to use his name on adaptations of his work a couple movies ago, and will continue the trend with “Watchmen,” results be damned. (In all fairness to Moore, if my name had been on “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” movie, I might do the same.) Artist Dave Gibbons has no such conditions, and his name will be proudly placed on all movie posters and advertising, and he’s thus far been happy with everything he’s seen of the production.

If you’ve seen the trailer for the film, then you already know it doesn’t look like the adventures of Superman, Spider-Man or The Hulkster (the green one, as opposed to Mr. Hogan), and if you’ve not seen the trailer, then do so right this second by visiting the official site. The story of “Watchmen” takes place in an alternate-‘80s timeline, where Nixon has entered his fifth term as president and the Cold War never ended. Into that maddening scenario was born Dr. Manhattan, the “Watchmen” equivalent of Superman, although in saying that, I am doing the morally ambiguous figure a huge disservice. This super-being does not represent truth or justice; indeed, Manhattan’s quandary is that he’s no longer sure if he should represent anything at all…and nobody on planet Earth is in a position to tell him otherwise. Well, almost nobody. Meanwhile, someone is killing off some of the planet’s other superheroes, which isn’t as tough a job as you might think, since Manhattan is the only one with any actual super powers. The rest of the brood trod the line between hero and vigilante and true heroes are almost a relic of the past in the “Watchmen” universe. One of the great questions the text seems to pose is, “What exactly defines a superhero?” It’s an especially poignant question, since most of the heroes in question seem mostly concerned with defining themselves. One such masked vigilante, Rorschach, is keen to get to the bottom of the murders, but he’s on his own since he’s not the easiest person to get along with, and the handful of cohorts who can deal with him have either retired or are uninterested.

Watchmen

As you can perhaps glean, “Watchmen” isn’t like most superhero concepts and, thus, it follows that it will stand apart from the pack as a film. Numerous movie versions of it have been attempted over the years, and none ever came to fruition. No less than Terry Gilliam eventually threw his hands up in frustration, claiming it couldn’t be made with anything less than a twelve hour running time. Snyder’s upcoming adaptation will reportedly hover around the two and a half hour mark theatrically, and a three-hour version will likely follow on DVD. Making the film has clearly been a labor of love for those involved…and I witnessed the love firsthand in January, when I spent a day on the set in Vancouver.

Visiting the “Watchmen” set was at times like stepping directly into the pages of the graphic novel, such is the attention being paid to detail by Snyder and Co. It was a breathtaking day that left me impatient for the finished film, a sentiment that was echoed by numerous members of the cast and crew as well: everyone who knows anything about “Watchmen” wants to see this movie.

WatchmenProducer (and wife of Zack) Deborah Snyder spoke of the challenges of bringing the concept to screen, including studio urging to update the concept to reflect the war on terror. “You start changing things and modernizing it and two things happen. One, it’s not ‘Watchmen’ anymore, it’s something else. Number two, it’s not a metaphor anymore, it becomes an opinion.”

Wouldn’t such a strategy also date the film 20 years from now?

Snyder, it seemed, was every bit as on the ball as her director husband. “Yeah, I think it would,” she said. “There are so many reasons why that’s not the thing to do. I think when they attempted to make the film in the past, they were too close to ’85. Now this is a period film, right? I believe it’s all in the timing, and…without ‘300’s’ success, Zack and Warner Bros. wouldn’t be making this movie.”

The Mrs. is of course speaking of the Mr.’s last film, “300,” also a graphic novel adaptation and also rated R, it was a huge success for the studio last year. (It should be noted that while “Watchmen” doesn’t yet have a rating, everyone involved in the production is confident that it will be an “R” and indeed that rating is the goal.) Further, the year before that saw the Warner Bros. release of yet another Alan Moore creation, “V for Vendetta,” which again was a successful R-rated outing. “Watchmen” will be unveiled on March 6, 2009 -- roughly the same release time frame as both the aforementioned films.

Watchmen

Will lightning strike three times for Warner Bros.? Only time will tell, but were I a betting man, I’d wager this would be the most successful of the three.

There are many, many more stories to tell from my “Watchmen” set visit, and Bullz-Eye will be publishing more articles later this year, so stay tuned and check back in with us, as there’s more to come. For the faithful, it’s going to be a long seven months until “Watchmen” finally hits the big screen. If you’re new to the concept, however, why not go out and pick up the graphic novel and experience it for yourself? This is one adaptation that looks set to live up to its source material in a big way.

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